Sunday, January 14, 2018

D&D Without HP

Since September, I've been looking down the barrel of an hour-plus commute five days a week. It's a major bummer. The one silver lining is that it gives me plenty of time to daydream when I should be paying attention to the road.

On Friday, I was thinking about hit points and combat in D&D (LotFP is my flavor of choice). It exists in this nebulous space where one d20 roll is not necessarily one swing of the sword, but could be a series of successful moves that wears down the opponent's stamina (thinking of HP as stamina has actually really helped me to conceptualize it, I think). In practice, though, it's often more dramatic and just plain easier to narrate the combat as though it were blow-by-blow. Sometimes, that makes it feel like lumbering battleships trading salvoes and doing unspecified "damage" until one finally sinks.

This is the one major disadvantage of the HP system, at least at my table. It abstracts combat to the point where hits have no concrete effect until 0 HP, and I have to do a little bit of on-the-spot adjudication every time a player wants to do something more specific than just "I attack".

What could a slightly more granular, HP-less D&D combat system look like? I've always liked the optional rules for dueling in A Red & Pleasant Land (p. 143). They're designed to add depth to one-on-one fights. Essentially, a dueler rolls on a short d6 injury table for every hit taken after reaching 0 HP. Once they roll the same injury twice, the dueler is either dead or unconscious (that's why the table is short).

I've used injury tables like this before. But what if we took HP out entirely and skipped right to the table? It could go something like this:

d10InjuryFirst hitSecond hitThird hit +Called shot AC bonus
1-2left legalways lose initiativemovement rate halvedlost, dead if not stabilized in 2d6 rounds1
3right legalways lose initiativemovement rate halvedlost, dead if not stabilized in 2d6 rounds1
4-5off arm-1 to most tasksincapacitated until healedlost, dead if not stabilized in 2d6 rounds1
6favored arm-2 to most tasksincapacitated until healedlost, dead if not stabilized in 2d6 rounds2
7-8torso-1 to most tasksbroken ribs, save to move until healeddead2
9equipmentone item destroyed (attacker's choice)weapon dropped---2
10headblood in eyes, -2 to anything involving sightdead---3

So, you'd roll to hit vs. AC as normal, but instead of rolling damage, you'd roll d10 to determine where you hit. Defenders would keep track of how many times that body part has been hit and apply the mechanical effects as they come up. If the attacker wants to hit a specific body part, the defender gets to add the indicated called shot bonus to AC.

Weapon damage would be replaced by how many "hits" one attack is worth. d4 and d6 weapons (daggers, shortswords, etc) would do one hit, d8 weapons (standard swords, etc) would do two hits, and d10 weapons (greataxes, etc) would do three. Critical hits would increase the number by one. Since any successful hit by a large weapon is likely to be a one-hit kill, there's a tradeoff: you can't apply any bonuses to hit, just the straight d20 roll. I'd also consider a Strength requirement to even wield a large weapon - either 13 or 16.

Without HP increases to make higher-level characters more survivable in combat, you'd need to increase base AC instead. Fighters and dwarves would go up 1 AC every two levels; clerics, elves, and thieves would go up every three; and magic-users and halflings every four.

This system would make combat short and brutal, which would work for some games but not others. It would require a bit of a different mindset than D&D combat as usual - mindless hack-and-slash without a plan is going to result in a lot of dead PCs. Also, you'd have to modify the table for non-humanoid creatures. Bespoke tables for each creature would help make fighting them feel unique, but it's a lot more work than just rolling up HP.


  1. Check out the Riddle of Steel for more ideas

  2. I like this idea a lot. Not usr eif just increasing AC would prevent many deaths. You could perhaps modify the armour rules, giving them a 40K like flat save to negate a blow, eg shield gives 4+ on a d6 of negating an entire attack, or leather armour 5+ on d6 to negate one hit worth of damage. That would give PCs more staying power (as well as foes). ACtually having written this I am reminded of the Dragon Warriors system. Hmm.

  3. Try taking a gander at ICE ROLEMASTER.The gaming group I ran created a condensed version of their combat tables to use in conjunction with the normal to hit system that AD&D uses. What we came up with brought all the descriptive combat along with the various modifiers for different strikes, injuries etc..- our combat after was never the same. Warning! Anytime you add to the existing system it's gonna make combat resolution longer but I always had 1 or more of my players to assist by reading results to the group so no one really minded.